Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, resigned about half a year into the job Wednesday, undone by financial conflicts of interest that became untenable.
She stepped down one day after Politico reported she bought stock in a tobacco company — a jarring contrast to the agency’s anti-smoking message.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar accepted her resignation on the third day of his own tenure, citing deep entanglements between her duties and her investment portfolio.
“Dr. Fitzgerald owns certain complex financial interests that have imposed a broad recusal limiting her ability to complete all of her duties as the CDC Director,” HHS spokesman Matt Lloyd said. “Due to the nature of these financial interests, Dr. Fitzgerald could not divest from them in a definitive time period. After advising Secretary Azar of both the status of the financial interests and the scope of her recusal, Dr. Fitzgerald tendered, and the Secretary accepted, her resignation.”
Dr. Fitzgerald dropped many of her investments after her appointment in July. But she was legally required to retain others, including ones related to cancer detection and health information technology, the Washington Post reported in early December.
She pledged to avoid aspects of government business that overlapped with those interests, prompting Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and other Democrats to complain she was unable to perform functions of her job. For instance, she was unable to testify before Congress on multiple occasions.
Documents obtained by Politico said the CDC chief took about a dozen new investments after assuming the CDC post, including stock in Japan Tobacco. A story about the purchases ran Tuesday, and she resigned the following morning.
On Twitter, former CDC Director Tom Frieden said Dr. Fitzgerald had impressed him. He said a financial manager for the departing director appeared to have bought the tobacco stocks without her knowledge.
“I have spoken with Dr. Fitzgerald & believe her when she says she was unaware a tobacco company investment had been made, she understands that any affiliation between the tobacco industry & public health is unacceptable, & that when she learned of it she directed that it be sold,” he tweeted.
Dr. Fitzgerald is an obstetrician-gynecologist who served as a major in the U.S. Air Force and ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress in the 1990s.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to run the state health department in 2011 — a post she held until Mr. Trump appointed her to the CDC last year.
She is leaving amid one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory. Nearly 40 children have died.
Also, the agency is assisting hurricane recovery efforts around the country and fighting opioids addiction, a scourge that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, a principal deputy who led the agency during the first half of 2017, will serve as acting director once again.
Dr. Fitzgerald is the second Trump official to resign from a prominent health agency.
Former HHS Secretary Tom Price stepped aside last fall amid complaints he used pricey plane travel instead of seeking out cheaper, commercial options.
During his confirmation hearings, Mr. Price also faced questions about stock trades that raised potential conflicts of interest.
Mr. Azar, a former Bush administration official and pharmaceutical executive, was sworn as his replacement on Monday.
“Dr. Fitzgerald’s tenure was unfortunately the latest example of the Trump Administration’s dysfunction and lax ethical standards,” Ms. Murray said.
“I hope the incoming secretary of health — nominated because his predecessor resigned for using taxpayer dollars for his personal luxury travel — will encourage President Trump to choose a new CDC Director who is truly prepared to focus on families and communities.”